Why Soft Pastels are not Chalks

Sophie Ploeg Pastel

Again and again people seem to refer to soft pastels as chalks, chalk crayons, chalk pastels and so forth. Even large art institutions seem still to be doing this. It creates the impression that chalks and pastels are the same thing and in my opinion it keeps the myth alive that pastel paintings are somehow worth less than paintings created with other art materials. 

Now you might think me over-sensitive to semantics. But there are still many people who rate pastel (and watercolour and coloured pencil etc) as somehow 'less' than oil paints. Some major art competitions only allow oils and acrylics in. Pastel paintings are sold for lower prices than oil paintings. I think we should try and find out some facts and bust some myths.

School Chalks

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Chalks are used for blackboards and pavement fun. They contain chalk (calcium carbonate, but I was never any good at science so don't drill me on the elements), plaster of Paris and dyes for colouring. Look for example at the helpful FAQ of Crayola for more info on their chalks. It seems like it makes sense to call these crayons 'chalks'.

Artists' Pastels

Soft pastel looks and feels a bit like chalk. So it is understandable to call them 'chalks' as well. But artists' pastels do not contain any chalk. At all. None. Whatsoever. Nor are they made for black boards or pavements. So although I understand that the word 'chalk' has crept into common language to refer to pastels, I cannot extend the same understanding to world famous museums, curators or artists using the word as well. 

I have not checked all pastel brands for their use of chalk (I know some do use it such as Mount Vision pastels) . Nor have I researched whether it is bad to put chalk into pastel. I am not here to bad-mouth chalk. But what I do know is that often artists' quality soft pastels do not contain chalk. So why on earth call them chalks and risk demoting them to the region of kindergarten work?

I have contacted my two favourite pastel manufacturers, Unison and Talens. Both underlined that none of their pastels contain any chalk. 

Seriously, there is no chalk in any of these pastels!

Sophie Ploeg Pastels

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Is Chalk Bad?

I don't know. I don't think so. I don't think chalk is a particularly bad ingredient for art materials. So just because your pastels contain chalk does not make them bad quality. I suspect, however, that there is no reason for soft pastels to contain chalk, as it does not function as a binder and it is not a pigment required for any of the colours. We would much rather paint with pigment than a superfluous material like chalk. So I suspect, but don't quote me on this, that some cheaper brands use it as a filler to save on pigment costs.

Why Can't I Call Pastels Chalks?

Because soft pastels are not the same as chalks (the kids' material) and it  feeds the impression that they are. It causes confusion. If people keep thinking that pastels and chalks are the same, pastel will never be considered a proper, archival and professional art material. Why call a fish soup, fish soup, if it does not contain any fish? So let's call it by its proper name: soft pastel. 

What is a Binder?

A binder is a material to keep the powdery pigment together so that it loses its powdery form. It is hard to draw or paint with coloured powder, so they mix it up with something to create a material that is usable. The binder for oil paints is usually linseed oil which makes for a very usable goo (technical term! 😉 ) that has been used for centuries. For pastel they add a binder to create a paste, which can be rolled into pastel sticks.  This way we can actually hold and use a pastel. Of course the binder has to be something that does not alter the pigment or the archival qualities of the painting. 

Talens Rembrandt

Despite Talens describing all their pastels as " a soft type of chalk" (Arch!) on their website, they tell me that their Rembrandt pastels contain NO chalk at all. Their carré pastels (square hard pastels that come in earth colours) do contain chalk. Their Rembrandt soft pastels are just pigment+binder and they use tragacanth gum or kaoline clay* as a binder, but they use as little as possible. Some pigments will hold together easier than others and so the amount of binder varies per pigment.  Talens won't reveal the exact recipe of their pastels. 

Unison 

Unison tells me that their specific recipe for their pastels is secret, just like Talens. But they also tell me that they 'mostly use no binders' and might use a 'very simple starch solution' if required.  There is no chalk or gum arabic in any of their pastels and they only use a little kaoline* or China clay for structure. They strongly believe in keeping things simple and honest. 

* I can’t vouch for this website but it has a seemingly useful description of the differences between Kaoline Clay and Calcium Carbonate HERE.

Soft Pastel is Soft Pastel

Soft pastels are not chalks. They usually don't contain chalk and are nothing like blackboard or pavement chalks, save for the shape and feel. Just like any other artists quality art material, soft pastels are made up of pigment and a binder to keep it in a certain shape. The quality of the pigments, binders and the process of making the art materials should define whether they are professional materials or not. Let's just all agree to call pastel by it's proper name and not by something that it is not.

How Unisons are Made

What makes Unison pastels so amazing in texture is the fact they make their pastels by hand. Other professional pastel makers do this as well and it shows in the quality of the pastel (Schmincke, Terry Ludwig). 

This beautiful video shows very well how Unison makes their pastels by hand. It really makes me want to start painting (thank you Unison, for allowing me to share this): 

This video has no sound

Beware...

I found this hilarious anecdote from the late Maggie Price(President of the International Association of Pastel Societies)

"

I'll never forget the incident some years ago when I went to interview Ramon Kelley for The Pastel Journal. He was very serious, very focused, and I was a little intimidated. Then, at some point, the definition of pastel came up. With a perfectly straight face and his serious demeanor, he said, "There's a spot out behind my studio where the students who called it chalk are buried." I burst out laughing and from then on the interview was less formal."


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16 thoughts on “Why Soft Pastels are not Chalks”

  1. Here is a question from a complete neophyte: what binder (if any) holds the pigment to the ground? Lynn Howarth mentioned that they are archivally sound, but would this be only if protected under glass?
    I enjoyed your article, Sophie.

    1. Hi Mona, glad you enjoyed the article. The exact recipe that pastel manufacturers use is often kept secret, but the binder can be a little bit of starch, clay or gum. That not only holds the pastel stick together but it also keeps the pigment particles together, just like oil keeps the pigment particles together in oil paint. Oil paint adheres to most surfaces very well, but the primers used for oil painting surfaces are particularly suitable. The same applies to pastel surfaces: paper has been shown to hold pigment very well. The pastel (or charcoal, or pencil etc ) paintings from the past are all still on the paper, none have fallen off! There is no reason to fear that the paint will come off its support, providing you use archival and stable supports (a non archival support would fall apart on its own, and so the paint ‘on it’ would fall off too).
      With ‘archival’ it is meant that the pigments and binders used will not discolour, fade or otherwise change over time. Although there is no standardised method for measuring pastel, there are standards for paints and pigments which is often referred to. So just like with oil paint or any other paint, something is archival if it will last a long time. Of course proper care (no direct sunlight, away from extreme heat or cold, protective glass etc etc) will enhance its longevity even more.
      It is always necessary to protect a pastel painting by framing it behind glass. This is not because it would not be archival otherwise, but because a pastel painting (like a charcoal drawing) is easily smudged.
      Hope that helps!! 🙂

  2. Brilliant post Sophie! I teach pastel techniques at a weekly class here in Glasgow and new students often ask me why pastels are almost always looked down upon by the bigger art institutions and sadly I have no proper way of answering their questions! I reckon it’s up to all pastel artists to fight their corner defending the beautiful medium of pastel. We must start educating the institutions that of all the professional mediums, pastels are one of the most stable, archivally sound and enduring mediums!

  3. WIth so many mind blowing pastel artists out there, it beggars belief that the art establishment fails to accord them the respect they deserve. I would love to see a time when all art, irrespective of medium is truly appreciated and valued accordingly to give artists a fair income for their efforts.

    1. Hear hear! Well, I don’t think it is THAT bad, and it remains a fact that pastel is simply less popular than oils and acrylics. But there are still people out there, indeed, who think pastel is less of an art medium than the other. Let’s hope this idea will die out soon.

  4. Great put together information Sophie. Reads well and is really engaging and to the point. Well done.
    Interesting comments from Carol about the preconception about oil pastel. The esteemed UK Pastel Society with the federation of British Artists at The Mall Galleries, London accept oil pastels as they are highly regarded in their own right so it would appear are much more well thought of than in the USA? As a pastelist I use the top brands with the most pigment to binder ratio. Like everything new, practice makes perfect – you may well get to like them Carol.
    All the best and look forward to your next reviews and art news.
    Robert

    1. Thanks for that great comment Robert. Although oil pastels might be as highly regarded as soft pastel, you don’t see them very often! They could do with some exposure I suppose. 😉

  5. Thank you for a useful and informative article.I was recently subject to the comment’ Oh,you’re using chalk’ in a dismissive way.Grrr!

  6. Well done, i have this discussion always while plein airs and in groups of pastelists too.
    Im fighting as you for the tight meaning of pastels and shared it on my pastel page and to german pastel group
    Thank you
    UTE
    Associated artist of Unisons
    Galerie farrbtraeume.com

  7. Hi Sophie. Thanks for the article on soft pastel. I teach both soft pastel and oil pastel techniques to an adult population in the Chicago area. The same misperceptions about soft pastel occur here as well, but an even bigger issue is evident with oil pastel. In my opinion, professional grade oil pastels are thought to be even less valuable than soft pastels and are lumped into the small minded idea that they are nothing more than soft crayons used by children in our schools. Sennelier, Holbein and Mungyo all make professional/archival quality oil pastels for drawing and painting. I find most of the same techniques for using soft pastel also apply to creating oil pastel artwork. Pastel societies and pastel competitions including The Pastel Journal Magazine have clearly indicatated that oil pastel artwork cannot be included in any of their events. Several of started an oil pastel painting group called The Yellow House Artists. We have about 50 artists and the group is celebrating it’s 10th year. Oil pastel is made with the same powdered pigment with a clear mineral oil and wax binder…..no dust! We use these sticks like soft pastel sticks. I find the artist and gallery industry primarily perpetuate or are at fault for the lack of respect. The public, in general, cares more about responding to what they see and feel and then ask what the art work is made of when they decide to purchase.
    http://www.zackartistry.com. http://www.yellowhouseartists.com

    1. Hi Carol, thank you so much for this wonderful addition to the article! Yes, I agree that oil pastel ( I don’t use them much myself hence my lack of attention for them, which is no good reason at all!) is often put in the inferior corner. It is such a shame and I applaud the efforts of the Yellow House Group! Thanks for highlighting and thanks for commenting! 🙂

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